Skipper sentenced for deaths.
PORTLAND - A federal judge sentenced former Winchester Bay charter captain Richard Oba to six years in prison on Friday for seaman's manslaughter in what may be the harshest punishment of its kind ever levied against a U.S. boat operator.
The sentence, more than double the prosecution's recommendation, represents the first time a West Coast captain has been convicted under the 170-year-old manslaughter law. It's four times the prison term that an overmedicated Richard Smith, skipper of the Staten Island Ferry, received after crashing his ship into a concrete pier in 2003, causing the deaths of 11 passengers.
Both Oba's attorney and U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton predicted the sentence would send a clear warning to other skippers in the region, who, faced with crossing rough river bars, often must decide between the safety of their passengers and the profits they lose when a trip is canceled.
"People will be on notice after this case occurs that you can go to jail for merely being negligent in the operation of a vessel where you have passengers on board," said Per Ramfjord, Oba's attorney. "That sends a very strong message."
The judge's ruling capped an emotional afternoon, during which family members of the three dead passengers and the only other person to survive the 2005 shipwreck chastised Oba. Eugene angler Jim Parker tearfully described seeing the crest of the 17-foot wave that toppled the Sydney Mae II - and the last time Parker saw Bill Harris, 57, of Springfield, Virginia Strelow, 63, of Reedsport and Paul Turner, 76, of Boise.
"I don't think I'll ever forget the blinking of the red light on the south jetty, the light of the wave, the sucking of the stern back into the wave, seeing the crest above our head on the flying bridge," Parker said. "Mr. Oba missed all that, because he was looking at his GPS."
Sentencing guidelines for reckless operation of the boat would have landed Oba, 52, in jail for between three and 4 1/2 years. But U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty went beyond the guidelines, offering no explanation other than the circumstances warranted it.
Oba pleaded guilty in January to three counts of seaman's manslaughter, a federal law that makes it illegal for a vessel captain to cause the death of a passenger through negligence, misconduct or inattention to duties.
His 38-foot boat left its home port of Winchester Bay on Sept. 19, 2005, with four passengers for a daylong fishing trip.
As night fell, Oba returned to the river bar crossing, ignoring as many as nine warnings that the bar was closed, with 14- to 16-foot waves breaking.
In a prepared statement, Oba said he didn't intend to cross the bar but that he wanted to look at it because other skippers had told him conditions had calmed, before driving 45 minutes out of the way to Charleston. Even a Coast Guard captain suggested the ocean was flattening out, Oba said. The wave hit when he thought he was in a safe area, he said, which is why he didn't have his passengers don life vests. "When the wave hit, I was in total shock. I didn't think I was in an area where my passengers were in danger," Oba said. "I never intended to place their lives at risk."
Parker said he'd tried to talk Harris out of the trip, having heard a forecast of bad weather.
`I told Bill, `Let's get off, right now,' ' Parker said. The boat was "inadequate," and it had a bad diesel fuel leak, Parker said, "but (Oba said) he was going to fix it, (but hadn't) because this was his last trip of the season. Little did he know this was the last trip for a lot of people."
When the wave hit the boat, Parker remembered a basic rule of seamanship, he said.
"Never leave the boat. When Bill was hanging on, I was hanging on to the flow ring," Parker said. "Ginger floated out of the cabin. I said, `Grab her.' I had a hold of her. These weren't small waves. These were big waves. The next wave washed Ginger away, and it took me out to sea. I was saying my last rites, because I felt like I was in a hopeless situation."
In the water, Parker swam against the tide to get back to the boat, knowing the Coast Guard would surely look for the vessel first. He came across a life jacket and a life raft. He managed to inflate the life raft, but it floated away before he could climb into it.
That's when he saw Harris, Parker said, "bobbing in the water." Parker tried to grab him but the surf was too strong. Seconds later, Parker said, "Bill was gone."
Then Parker heard a voice: ` `Is anybody out there?' Splashing around in the water, with his full, blown-up life jacket, is my captain, Richard Oba,' Parker said. `He said, `There's a light in your life jacket,' and he turned it on. If I'd known there was a light in the life jacket it would have been on the whole time. `He said, `Let's clench together and keep warm.' I told him we were close to the South Jetty. `We've got to swim.' I swam until I couldn't swim no more.'
Oba panicked, Parker said, and "started pushing me underwater. I've got a death grip on my life jacket. I'm thinking I'm going to leave him, take a shot at the beach. I grab his hand, hang onto this hand, hoping he would stop trying to put me underwater. That worked."
That's when Coast Guard rescuers pulled both men out of the water, at about 9:12 p.m. Harris and Strelow's bodies washed up on the beach. Turner's was never recovered.
Harris' daughter, Stacy Harris, was the first to address the court Friday. She handed out a series of photographs, glued to posterboard, one set for the judge and two more for the courtroom. Then she turned to Oba and said, "This is my father."
"You tore my family into pieces. You destroyed Jim, and you turned Pat Turner's life upside down. She couldn't even remain in the home she shared with her husband," Harris said. "She had to sell her home."
Her hands shaking, Harris lit into Oba, who she said refused to take responsibility for what happened. She said the captain had only blamed others and tried to make himself seem a victim.
"Why were you the only one wearing a life jacket?" Harris said. "Where was your safety briefing? Why didn't you tell the other passengers to put on a life jacket when you put on yours?"
Harris said Oba sent a private investigator to her home, who tried to harass her family and convince them the skipper was innocent.
"You lied to my family about who you were in an attempt to pump them for information about this investigation," Harris said, "while my father's cold, lifeless body was still on the beach."
Oba said he was sorry for the accident, and that "the families of the deceased are unwilling to give me Christian forgiveness."
Stacy Harris remembered a different apology.
"My father, Bill Harris, Virginia Strelow - they paid with their lives," she said. "My father's good friend, Jim Parker: You should have seen him apologize to us when he said he couldn't hold on to my father's body."
- Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or firstname.lastname@example.org.